Ed Miliband, with crown. Photo: Getty/New Statesman composite
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Election 2015 Style: Flower Power Ed uses his head

The most successful manifestations of style and fashion may be defined not by conformity, but by otherness, writes Harper's Bazaar editor Justine Picardie.

Such is the nature of print journalism that I am writing this before the election has taken place, although by the time some of you come to read these words, the voting will be over, even if no clear outcome has yet emerged. This seems strangely reminiscent, to me at least, of the constant state of uncertainty that defines the fashion world, however much it might pride itself on an ability to make predictions about people’s desires and demands.

Of course, some readers will feel that fashion has no place in any analysis of politics; to which I can only point in the direction of the ardent teenage Milifans, who have been busily rebranding the Labour leader by photoshopping decorative flower crowns on to his head. As it happens, these were remarkably similar to the floral headpieces worn by the models in the Chanel couture show in January this year: bright and light and optimistic, despite the general gloom in Paris at the time.

Source: Twitter

One of the sweet and funny things about the crowns is how absurd they looked on Miliband – a man who I suspect has never even glanced at pictures of a Chanel fashion show, let alone considered the semiotics of flower power. But what I also liked about the flowers, and their sudden sprouting on Ed’s head, was that their presence seemed to suggest that even in an age of professional spin-doctors, politics is as impossible to control as the ebb and flow of fashion.

The appealing irrationality of the floral garlands was, of course, entirely unexpected; for they arose out of nowhere, in the midst of an election campaign in which the three main political leaders – Messrs Cameron, Clegg and Miliband – had hitherto worn identical-looking tailored dark suits, all of them accessorised with pale blue shirts and neatly knotted plain ties. Yet for all the inherent absurdity of Miliband being crowned with flowers, it has some ancient precedent. Consider the laurel wreaths of the classical world, the symbols of victory and triumph; or a grass crown, the noblest of military decorations in ancient Rome.

According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Julius Caesar liked to wear his laurel wreath on all occasions, in order to conceal his baldness, which he combined with a rather particular hairdo, still known today after the great dictator. George Clooney has been sporting a similar style to great effect on the set of his new film, Hail, Caesar!. So, too, has the Conservative Party’s very own pin-up, George Osborne, who unveiled his Caesar cut last year, along with a series of impeccably tailored suits that displayed his newly trim physique (apparently the result of strict adherence to the 5:2 diet). And even without a laurel wreath, Osborne’s hair has looked rather more luxuriant since he adopted Caesar’s tonsorial approach; although, as yet, I’ve been unable to find any Twitter fans who have adorned the Chancellor with flowers or a grass crown.

But just as Caesar’s laurel wreath did not save him from assassination, Miliband’s flower crown may not herald his ascent to power. However, his abundant hair could augur well, according to the belief that a bald man is unlikely to beat a hirsute one in an election. Thus William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard were unable to compete with Tony Blair’s hair.

Where this leaves the slightly balding, smooth-shaven David Cameron remains unclear. After all, he managed to defeat the undeniably hairier Gordon Brown in the last election; which might explain the MBE conferred upon the Prime Minister’s innovative hairdresser, Lino Carbosiero. (That said, Cameron’s coalition government did involve him joining forces with the more hirsute Nick Clegg). It might also explain why Nigel Farage recently speculated that Cameron had been using hair-dye, thereby implying that the Prime Minister was not only greying, but vain. Boris Johnson, in contrast, would want you to think that he doesn’t care about such piffling details, though his déshabillé appearance may be more contrived than he might let on; he has been observed on more than one occasion deliberately ruffling his blond locks before taking the stage to speak.

All of which reminds me that the most successful manifestations of style and fashion – and, quite possibly, politics – may be defined not by conformity, but by otherness. Hence most of the greatest designers have been mavericks or outsiders, such as Coco Chanel, who emerged from ­poverty, illegitimacy and obscurity to become an icon of female independence. “Fashion is not simply a matter of clothes,” she declared. “Fashion is in the air, borne upon the wind. One intuits it. It is in the sky and on the street.” Heaven only knows what Mademoiselle Chanel would make of the Milifans’ floral handiwork; but I for one salute them for their creative wit and loyal spirit, even if their beloved leader remains as yet uncrowned, except in their imagination.

Justine Picardie is the editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar

This article first appeared in the 06 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Struggle

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.